Easter has just passed us and gone, and it definitely afforded us the time to reflect on the impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So I want to share my reflections on this period, with particular emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the eminent NT scholars of our time, Nicholas Thomas Wright, has been challenging my notions of the implications of Christ’s resurrection in his book Surprised by Hope, and I cannot but share them with us all.
We have all read and re-read some of the recorded instances of public preaching in the book of Acts. However, a little bit more attention to detail will show that one of the continuous themes that most Christians have missed (simply because most of the preaching of the gospel we hear misses it too) was the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we already know, the word “gospel” means “good news”. Now look at how the “good news” always included the resurrection in the ff passages.
“Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, the he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Ac 2:31-32 NIV) – Peter preaching the gospel on the day of Pentecost
“We tell you the good news; What God promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus …” (Ac 13:32 NIV) – Paul preaching to the Jews & God-fearers of Psidian Antioch
“A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (Ac 17:18 NIV) – Paul preaching in Athens.
Before we go on, it is important to note that most Jews of the time of Jesus and the apostles sided with the Pharisees on the belief that one day there will be a general resurrection of the dead. This belief is echoed by Martha when Jesus said her brother Lazarus will rise again in Jn 11:24. And by resurrection they don’t mean the spirit rising and the body being left behind, as Greco-Roman influences have changed the Christian message over the years. Resurrection was meant to be just like Christ’s own – a resurrected body being a fusion of the spirit and a transformed body that can be recognised, seen, and touched, but can also enter rooms without opening doors (1 Co 15:35-44). The idea that the body is a corrupt thing which must be left behind for the purified soul/spirit to go to heaven is totally pagan Greco-Roman philosophy which has been imported into Christianity, and works against everything that Judaism and it’s younger brother early Christianity taught about resurrection.
We are familiar with the Jewish belief in a Messiah who was supposed to come and rescue Israel from it’s assailants (Is 40) – at the time of Jesus their political assailant was the Roman Empire. According to Ps 72 (especially v 8), Ps 47 and other OT passages, this Messiah will not only rule over Israel, but also over the whole world. In the light of all of this, why is Jesus’ Christ’s resurrection so important that the delivery of the apostle’s gospel to unbelievers always included mention of the fact that Jesus Christ was resurrected?
Christ’s Resurrection Was a Repudiation of the Earthly Powers
At the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, the Roman Empire revered it’s dead emperors as gods that needed to be worshipped. Overtime however, the living ones coveted this honour, and declared themselves gods as well. These emperors had their images placed in temples of all the cities they’d conquered, forcing everyone to worship them. However none of the emperors in all their vanity, ever died and resurrected. However, Jesus had resurrected. That is why Paul says God has given the world proof that Jesus will judge the world by “raising him from among the dead” when he was talking to the Athenians.
To therefore declare Jesus as the king of the world was not a simple matter, because Paul was definitely challenging the Roman emperor. With this background then, it is very easy why Paul will be accused of treason whiles in Thessalonica in the ff:
“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here … They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Ac 17:6-7)
According to the German historian, Ethelber Stauffer, the religious principle of the Roman Empire, from the days of Augustus on, was salvation by Caesar: “Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved”. Now, tell me how different this is from what Peter said in Ac 4:12? In the same way, tell me how different this is from our blindness to the political systems of the day including democracy, which claim to be the solution to men’s problems? The resurrection of Jesus was truly a political statement (not just a spiritual one), and a treasonous one at that.
If Christ is indeed the king of this world, shouldn’t Christians be reconsidering their die-hard following of earthly political powers, since salvation is indeed to be found only in Christ?
Christ’s Resurrection Commissions Us to Build His Kingdom on Earth
To most Christians, our idea of the kingdom of God/heaven is a kingdom that will only come in the future. For now, all we need to do is to believe in Jesus Christ and go to church and “worship” him, all in waiting for the time when we “go to heaven”. But if this king’s kingship was all about a future kingdom, then there was no need for the people of Thessalonica to feel threatened by the declaration that Jesus is Lord (not “Jesus will be Lord”).
What has worsened this erroneous idea of “worship until he comes” is a misunderstanding of passages like Phil 3:20-21 where Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven”. Most people have miscronstrued it to mean that we are meant for heaven, so we have no role on this earth except waiting for Christ (and thereby the purpose of church is to save more people for heaven, and that the church is just an association of the saved). However, the Philippian recipients would have understood what Paul said quite differently. Philippi was a Roman colony. Augustus had settled his veterans there after the battles of Philippi (42 BC) and Actium (31 BC). This was done to spread the rule of the Roman empire, as well as to prevent overcrowding of Rome with old veteran soldiers. Therefore most of these people were Roman citizens by default. Paul is only using the same imagery of Roman citizenship that they are very familiar with to show them who they were to God and what their purpose was – God is using them, citizens of heaven, to establish and extend his kingdom over this earth until he comes, just like Augustus was using them to spread the Roman empire.
Paul spent the longest chapter he’d ever written of his epistles on the topic of resurrection in 1 Cor 15, yet he did not conclude that because we are going to be resurrected, we should cross our legs and go to sleep – he rather says that we should stand firm and not be moved, because our labour is not in vain (v 54). What labour could that be? Believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven? I think you’ll agree that there’s very little “labour” involved in that.
Christ’s Resurrection & Kingship Shows Us the Way of His Kingdom
But if we are to build his kingdom, we are to build it as he wills it and with the methods and means he has shown us – with love and self-sacrifice. Many people have sought to “establish the kingdom of Christ” by using the same tools and methods that the world uses in establishing itself – violence, laws, discrimination, nationalism, political systems, bureaucracy and abuse of authority etc. But the author of the gospel of John spent chapters 13 to 17 laying down the true markers of Jesus’ kingdom (some scholars say the Gospel of John was indeed written by Lazarus, being likely to be the “disciple Christ loved”, and the evidence is rather interesting, see Jn 21:22-24) . He begins with Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet and the call to self-sacrifice for one another (Jn 13:13-17), to love for one another (Jn 13:34), to laying down our lives for one another (Jn 15:13), to the work of the Holy Spirit in showing us the will of the Father, to praying to the father that they may be one in community with each other (Jn 17) just as he is in community with the Father in the Trinity.
These standards are standards that the earthly political systems will never be able to live by, being driven by greed, power, pride and divided interests. This is why it is amongst them that claim to be part of this kingdom inaugurated by the King who is superior to Caesar (here referring to all socio-cultural and political ideologies) that we are supposed to see these virtues alive. If our king is truly alive now (and not just in the future), then we have a responsibility to make his kingdom’s impact felt through his way, not our way. And yet there is much to be desired amongst us believers, for predominantly we prefer the means of the world in achieving the purposes of our king. Any other way apart from his, and we are simply building our personal kingdoms and not his eternal one.
It Shows Christ’s Victory Over Death and the Coming Judgement
Then as now, the number one tool that can be used to threaten a people into submission is the fear of death. Just look right now at what Ghadaffi is doing in Libya, and you’ll know why that is. However, when a people see death as only an inconvenience because they will rise again (not just their spirits alone), they are not afraid to stand before those who do evil and condemn them. Unfortunately Christians have been trained to think that death is a good thing, because it is the means by which we “go to heaven from this evil world” anyway. Hear NT Wright
“A piety that sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last,’ the time when we are ‘called to God’s eternal peace,’ has no quarrel with power-mongers who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends.”
And this state of affairs is clearly played out in the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees on the one hand and the Sadducees on the other. Though Jesus seems to be quite critical of the Pharisees, he tended to agree more with them than with the Sadducees for good reason. According to NT historian FF Bruce’s “New Testament History”, the Sadducees were the council of priests who run the temple. At the time of Jesus the high priest was no longer appointed from the family of Zadok, descendant of Aaron, but chosen by the Roman authorities dependent on ones political connections and or how much bribe one could pay. They were therefore more interested in oppressing the people, the upshot of which was their resistance to the idea of resurrection, because resurrection was tied to judgement. This is very similar to the reaction of the Athenians regarding the ideas of resurrection and judgement in Act 17:31-32.
How different is this reaction against the idea of resurrection from those of world leaders from communists to democrats who abhor the idea of resurrection and judgement – simply because what they do with their political leadership tenures today has implications?
There are so many implications of Jesus’ resurrection that NT Wright talks about in arguably his most popular book, “Surprised by Hope”, which I can’t cover for lack of space. But one of the points which I cannot conclude without mentioning is what resurrection means to our concept of salvation. If Christ’s resurrection is about declaring him king of now and in the future, then the purpose of my salvation is not just my personal deliverance from sin, but my inclusion into that community of people who are making his kingdom felt on this earth until he comes. I have written elsewhere about the problem with our individualistic eyeglasses through which we read and practice the NT, so I couldn’t help resonating with NT Wright on this point. To the early Christian, salvation was not only about them being saved, but them being added to the Lord (as correctly translated by the KJV in Ac 5:14) and to his community. Christianity is not centered on “my relationship with God”, but “my membership in the family of God”. This is why there are 58 references to “one another” in the NT. This is why Paul talks about “Christ in you (plural “you”) – (Col 1:27)” and “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27). One thing I’ve noticed is that when a person is the center of attention, their focus is on projecting themselves. If the center of attention is on the group that he belongs to, then their focus is on projecting that group. As the Americans say, we pick our poison, and contemporary Christianity has obviously picked the former, so today we are bearing the fruits in individualisim and personal prosperity/breakthrough seeking over communal advancement and sacrifice for one another. But the problem started long ago, and today’s fruits are only latter day manifestations.
The implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his claim to kingship of the world both now and the future are seriously challenging on multiple fronts. We have a lot of restating of our message and purpose to do because the resurrected king and his kingdom is already amongst us.
Vicit Angus Noster Eum Sequamur – Our Lamb has Conquered, Him Let us Follow